In A Nutshell
Amid the remote Orkney Islands of Scotland lies the massive natural anchorage called “Scapa Flow” that was used by the British Royal Navy in World War I. At the end of the war, it was here that a German admiral performed one last, grand act of defiance, giving the order to scuttle interned German ships as the Treaty of Versailles was being negotiated and signed. Until recently, we only had official reports of what had happened. But now, the letter of a young British sub-lieutenant has been published. He was at the scene, and his letter, filled with emotion, contemporaneously records the events of that time as he’s telling them to a family member.
The Whole Bushel
In the early 1900s, the Imperial German Navy rose to become a force second only to the great British Royal Navy. By the time World War I began in July 1914, Britain had 43 battleships, of which 24 were modern dreadnoughts, while Germany had 31 battleships and 13 dreadnoughts. Britain’s battleships sailed faster and had larger guns. Their navy had twice as many cruisers, too.
With such superior numbers, the British were able to rid the waters of German merchant ships by early 1915, effectively blocking Germany’s trade routes. A few years later, the Germans desperately needed food and other supplies, which contributed to their surrender. As historian Andrew Choong told the BBC, “I personally think the maritime contribution was [Britain’s] most important one, but not in battle. It was the quieter strangulation by blockade.”
On November 11, 1918, World War I ended with Germany signing an armistice. All of Germany’s most modern ships and all of its submarines were to be interned by neutral countries. But no countries wanted to play host, so the Allies interned the ships at Scapa Flow, a natural anchorage amid the Orkney Islands of Scotland.
As the Treaty of Versailles was negotiated, the Allies became eager to divide the fleet of German ships as spoils of war. But the Germans had other ideas. At 10:30 AM on June 21, 1919, German Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter sent one last message to his men as they sat on their ships at Scapa Flow: “Paragraph Eleven; confirm.” Immediately, the German sailors obeyed, opening seacocks to allow seawater to rush in and scuttle the ships. The British had orders to shoot any Germans who refused to shut the valves and stop the ships from sinking.
In June 2015, a letter from Hugh David (a sub-lieutenant on the British battleship HMS Revenge) to his mother was published, giving us a firsthand account of the events of that historic day. HMS Revenge headed to Scapa Flow at full speed to help secure the German ships. But by the time they got there, half of the German ships had already sunk, and the water was littered with floating wreckage. The largest ship, the Bayern, had reared vertically in a cloud of smoke before crashing to the bottom of the sea.
But it was the moment when the British Admiral Sir Sydney Fremantle met the German Admiral von Reuter that was the most dramatic for David. He describes their encounter:
Fremantle was of course the picture of smartness in all his Admiral’s trappings whilst von Reuter disheveled, wet and white as a sheet was quite the opposite—at first there was a pause, the German standing at the salute, then the following conversation:
Fremantle: I presume you have come to surrender.
Von Reuter: I have come to surrender my men and myself (with a sweeping gesture towards the fast sinking ships) I have nudding else.
Von Reuter: I take upon myself the whole responsibility of this, it is nothing to do with my officers and men—they were acting under my orders.
Fremantle: I suppose you realise that by this act of treachery [hissing voice] by this act of base treachery, you are no longer an interned enemy but my prisoner of war and as such will be treated.
Von Reuter: I understand perfectly.
[ . . . ] All this only took a few seconds during which time I strapped a revolver round my waist, grabbed some ammunition and leapt into the drifter with an armed guard . . . to save the [largest German cruiser].
They weren’t able to save the large cruiser (which was named the Hindenburg), only the battleship Baden. It was the biggest loss of warships in a single event in history. Yet David seems most disturbed that the British had orders to shoot the uncooperative German sailors. He continues in his letter:
The terrible part of the whole show, to my mind, was that the Huns hadn’t got a weapon between them and it was our bounden duty to fire on them to get them back to close their valves. [ . . . ] None of them would go back even after half their boat’s crews had been butchered. They were brave men, but we were in an awful position as it was quite obvious that the Huns would die to a man rather than save their ships so there was no point in going on firing. Yet what could we do?
The sailors who died at Scapa Flow were the last fatalities in World War I. Much of the German wreckage still sits at the bottom of the sea.
Show Me The Proof
BBC Magazine: The day the entire German fleet surrendered
BBC Magazine: WW1: The letter that reveals a brutal day at Scapa Flow
Hugh David’s letter (pdf)
HistoryNet: World War I: German Battleships Scuttled at Scapa Flow